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Businesses, workers in Port Alberni adjust to Highway 4 closure

Port Alberni cut off from the east side of Vancouver Island, detour causes problems
Tiffany Kubel, Assistant Director of Care, and Tara Jaworski, Director of Care for Fir Park Village and Echo Village stand beside a cargo van full of medical supplies that was delivered last week. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

While the closure of Highway 4 has had an impact on the tourists who are visiting Port Alberni and the West Coast, it has also impacted people in Port Alberni—some of which are left without work while a wildfire burns at Cameron Bluffs beside the highway.

Savanna Massari’s husband, Stuart Walker, owns and operates Full Coverage Irrigation. While his business is based in Port Alberni most of his clients are between Courtenay and Nanaimo on the east side of the Island. Walker is cut off from working because of it, says Massari. Walker is unable to drive his specialized equipment over the alternate route through Lake Cowichan every year.

“This is his busiest time of year. He’s missing out on tens of thousands of dollars of work. He has to wait for the road to open back up.”

The irony, says Massari, is the couple moved to the Alberni Valley from Nanaimo in March, and they have a new baby so Massari is not working.

Many people have taken to social media to share their stories of missing work, being unable to get to work or missing medical appointments because they can’t get to communities on the other side of the closure. Sean Prpich, for example, works as a longshoreman and although he lives in Port Alberni, he travels all over Vancouver Island for work. This isn’t the first time he’s been trapped on one side of the highway, but it’s definitely the longest. He recalls leaving for work in Nanaimo on the morning of June 6 and noticing that the Cameron Bluffs fire “was really close” to the highway.

“I brought a change of clothes,” he said. “I was expecting to be stuck on the other side for a day, maybe two.”

Instead, he had to go to the store to buy a whole new wardrobe as he was stuck living in a hotel for almost a week. He finally managed to catch a ride with a coworker back to the Alberni Valley through the alternate route, leaving his car in Crofton since it wouldn’t be able to make the trip on the gravel roads.

The alternate route through Lake Cowichan is not a viable one for travelling workers, said Prpich.

“It’s a long drive,” he said. “I can’t be driving that every day.”

Prpich thinks the provincial government should be opening up the Horne Lake route as an alternate route to Port Alberni instead.

“I’ve driven that road lots,” he said. “It only takes an extra 20 minutes. I really think we should be pushing for that as an alternate highway.”

Tanya Auger, meanwhile, normally commutes from the Port Alberni area to Parksville, where she works in childcare, but she has been stuck on the Parksville side for more than a week.

“It’s an act of God, it’s a natural disaster, I get it,” she said. “But, I mean when people are stuck, there’s no resources.”

Auger says she is frustrated by the lack of a reception centre and that the only detour is lengthy and difficult to traverse for many vehicles. Auger is a single parent and said she is fortunate that there are grandparents who can look after her child while she is stuck in Parksville.

“Some people are sleeping in their cars,” she said. “Luckily for me, my employer is letting me stay there. But I don’t want to overstay my welcome either.”

Kenya Kennedy says she originally chose Port Alberni as her home because of its central location on Vancouver Island. She is a bridal makeup artist who does work all over the Island and Gulf Islands, including trials out of a bridal boutique in the Comox Valley. Kennedy says she “just barely” managed to get out of Port Alberni in time before the highway was closed.

“I was definitely panicking at first,” she said. “But we managed to pack up the family and find some housing in Nanaimo. Had we not gotten out in time, I wouldn’t be able to work.”

Her car is not built to drive the gravel alternate route, and she says she’s now having second thoughts about the home she has chosen in Port Alberni.

“I have a two-year-old asking to go home every day who doesn’t understand why we can’t,” said Kennedy. “We only have the one highway—if something happens to it, it’s important for people to be able to get out.”

Businesses adjust

Local business owners have also been adjusting to the highway closure. Local breweries Twin City Brewing and Dog Mountain Brewing, for example, have come up with creative ways to produce and market their products. Twin City Brewing was able to acquire some brewing supplies from Cumberland Brewing Company, flown in by plane, while Dog Mountain Brewing has been delivering beer by boat instead of van.

Island Health, meanwhile, has been chartering some health-care workers in and out of the Alberni Valley by plane, while LifeLabs has also chartered an aircraft to transport lab samples out of Port Alberni for testing and to transport “critical supplies” to patients in Port Alberni.

Non-profits impacted

Local businesses and workers are not the only ones impacted by the closure, as non-profits have been adjusting to the lack of options for deliveries. The Alberni Valley Community Food Bank has been suffering through the Highway 4 closure as grocery stores figure out their food supply schedule. Last week Loaves and Fishes Community Food Bank in Nanaimo sent some pallets of food over the detour route to Port Alberni. Salvation Army director of community resources Lisa George also travelled to Ucluelet to the On the Edge Food Bank.

The Alberni-Clayoquot Continuing Care Society, which runs the seniors care homes Fir Park Village and Echo Village in Port Alberni, was worried that homes might not be able to get timely deliveries of medical supplies. Executive director Joe McQuaid was stuck on the other side of the highway and decided to check with care homes on the east side of the Island. He received a donation of medical supplies from the Care Group, which runs Sidney Care Home on the Island.

With their help, McQuaid rented a cargo van and was able to bring the supplies home through the “treacherous” logging roads between Lake Cowichan and Port Alberni.

“They went out of their way to help us,” said McQuaid. “We’re good now for at least another two weeks.”

Governments respond

Higher levels of government are aware of the impact on Port Alberni. The provincial government has been in contact with the business community, said Transportation Minister Rob Fleming during a press conference on Tuesday, June 13, and is working with the federal government to find out what supports can be offered for both businesses and workers. Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns, meanwhile, called on the federal government for emergency supports to food banks and local businesses to help people cut off by the wildfires.

“This is impacting people who are already struggling with food insecurity,” he said. “They’re worried, and many don’t know where their next meal will come from.”

Johns said he has been “assured” by families and social development minister Karina Gould and employment minister Carla Qualtrough “that all Employment Insurance applications will be ‘expedited and prioritized.’”

He urged workers to file claims if they have had any shortage of work for at least seven consecutive days. He said Services Canada is working with claimants who have been unable to obtain a Record of Employment, which is a requirement. Any workers having difficulties filing claims can call Johns’ office at 1-844-620-9924 and leave a message.

Teachers in the Alberni Valley are wishing the provincial government would step up to help protect their rights. A “couple of handfuls” of teachers who live in Parksville Qualicum Beach and commute to Port Alberni to teach have been told they have to report to work or they won’t get paid. Alberni District Teachers’ Union president Ryan Dvorak said some of the teachers were given two days to make arrangements to get to work. Others have been “substantially impacted” by the closure and School District 70’s demand that they show up in person to work.

“It’s one thing when your commute is a 35-minute drive you’ve been doing for five or six years. It’s another when it’s several hours (on a detour route) and now it’s a 10-hour commute,” Dvorak said.

The school district is not giving teachers having to find accommodation in Port Alberni any per diem or “living out” allowance. The ADTU is hoping to help their members financially while lobbying the provincial government for legislation that will protect workers in this situation.

Dvorak said SD70 teachers’ situation is not unique: teachers in Abbotsford faced similar challenges during the flooding of November 2021, and those in Merritt during wildfires too.

The Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce and Alberni Valley Tourism are also hoping to provide support for local businesses and organizations. The two have partnered to conduct a survey to gauge the economic impact of the Cameron Bluffs wildfire on the community.

“I know that this remains difficult and challenging for many businesses whose freight is delayed or suspended for delivery for an undetermined amount of time along with the reduction of visitors,” said Chamber CEO Jolleen Dick. “The feasibility of commuting to or from jobs on the other side of the closure is putting an increasing amount of pressure on the business community.”

The survey can be found on the Chamber’s website, or you can contact the Chamber at 250-724-6535 to find out more.

Joe McQuaid, executive director of Alberni Clayoquot Continuing Care Society receives donations of medical supplies from Joan Smyth Director of Care for Sidney Care Home, and Gavin McIntosh, owner of Sidney Care Home. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)